Among the many capacities of the human brain are imagination and creativity. The two are not unrelated. If imagination is the brain’s ability to bring forth for our mental perception objects and events that are not in our immediate vicinity, creativity conjures up entities that are endowed with charm and beauty, even meaning and substance which may not even be there in the tangible world. All of us share these gifts, but they are most developed among poets and artists. As Shakespeare’s Theseus said perceptively,
The poet’s eye, in a fine frenzy rolling,
Doth glance from heaven to earth and from earth to heaven;
And, as imagination bodies forth
The forms of things unknown, the poet’s pen
Turns them to shapes, and gives to airy nothing
A local habitation and a name.
At one time poets played important roles in many cultures and civilizations. Poets elevate us to higher modes of perception. Through their rhythmic lines we begin to see aspects of the world that escape our ordinary cognition. We have all seen rainbows, but hear how Wordsworth exclaims:
My heart leaps when I behold
A rainbow in the sky:
So was it when my life began;
So is it now I am a man;
So be it when I shall grow old,
Or let me die!
We not only rejoice at the rainbow with greater joy, but recognize how such joy at a beauteous wonder of nature can add meaning to life’s experience.
Whether it be flowers in bloom, birds chirping, or bare trees in wintry whiteness, there is, in the words of a poet again, “more than meets the eye” in every facet of nature. The setting sun and the crescent moon, the cascade, the meadow and the gentle brook, every scene and action on nature’s grand arena has been captured and reflected upon by this poet or that. Not that it was always praise and admiration: If Shelly saw “the mountains kiss high Heaven”, Andrew Marvell moaned that mountains do “the Earth deform and Heaven fright.” Poetic phrasing more than a garland of words pleasing to the ears. It brings us to levels of awareness that would otherwise have been beyond our being. It makes us regard the world such as we had not done before. It conjures up a new world of reality, not of material things, but of images and ideas that compete with the very stuff of reality.
Now there are at least two ways of interpreting this transformation of words and sounds into palpable truths. The first is to say that poetry transports us to a new dimension of reality. The poet’s vision is logophonic: its instruments are words and sounds. Francis Berry analyzed and illustrated the thesis that a “poem’s significance also depends on the kind of voice conveying the information.” In order to fully appreciate the import of the poet’s vision, we must refine our notion of reality.
Contrary to common sense, reality is not so much substantiality as a framework for our feelings and actions. It is not airy idealism but unadulterated realism to hold that no matter what exists, its perception, recognition, and description are very much a function of the mind that perceives, recognizes, and describes. Everything that we swear to be reality, the whole reality, and nothing but reality dissolves or disappears if our visions change, either as a result of more information or simply due to modifications in brain chemistry..
A great many arguments and controversies on the question may be averted, and much insight gained, by enlarging our definition of reality, not by giving a blanket certificate of reality to anything and everything one says or dreams of, but by categorizing different dimensions of reality. It would be presumptuous and unnecessary to attribute any hierarchical status to these. Human beings function in various modes, and each mode has its own framework of reality.
We have all experienced the optical illusion of the moon in motion behind cottony clouds in the sky. But we may experience that common sight somewhat differently after reading Milton’s lines in Il Penseroso,
I walk unseen
On the dry-smooth-shaven green,
To behold the wandering moon,
Riding near her highest noon,
Like one that had been led astray
Through the heav’n’s wide pathless way;
And oft, as if her head she bowed,
Stooping through a fleecy cloud.
To another poet (Alfred Noyes) the moon was “a ghostly galleon tossed over the purple moon.” And to Alfred Musset, who saw the moon on top of a church-bell, it seemed like the dot on the letter i.
“C’était, dans la nuit brune,
Sur le clocher jauni,
Comme un point sur un i.
Every poet that spied the moon and expressed how he or she saw the heavenly ball of changing shape felt and said a different thing. To each perceiving soul, reality is not simply what there is, but how what there seems to be strikes it at a particular instant. When a thoughtful and charismatic individual articulates his or her version of what is perceived in the world around in effective modes – metrical, musical or mystical – it is transferred to the thought processes of others, and so a group or a community forms its own vision of reality.